In last year’s roundup of the top stories of the year, I argued that 2014 was the year we were all drafted into the culture wars. “This is the year when we were served noticed that we won’t be allowed to stand on the sidelines, because we will not be allowed to think differently from the left.” The signature story of the year was the comet shirt guy, a mild-mannered scientist caught wearing the wrong shirt on television. That case served notice that “To be targeted by accusations of misogyny, you don’t have to be a beer-chugging ‘bro’ who spends his Spring break judging wet T-shirt contests. Now they’re coming after the geeks and yes, even the hipsters.”
Everyone is a combatant in the Great Social Justice War.
This past year saw some interesting follow-ups to that story, including a rebellion among science fiction fans, who upset the Hugo Awards in a briefly effective counterattack against political correctness, only to be repulsed when the leftist establishment decided it had to burn down the Hugos in order to save them.
But the big new development in 2015 is that the left’s culture war came back to attack the very institutions that hatched it.
Early in the year, I remarked on the irony of leftist writer Jonathan Chait whining about political orrectness. He is absolutely right about the stultifying, totalitarian nature of the demands for conformity and the injustice of accusing people of racism merely for saying something you don’t like. But the system he’s complaining about is one he helped bring into existence and which he has used to smear his opponents as racists.
So you can see Chait’s dismay at seeing good white “liberals” have their Not Racist credentials challenged by those who are farther out on the left. Don’t they know how the system is supposed to work? Appeals to race, class, and gender are supposed to be used to grant moral authority to (mostly) white, male, heterosexual, “cis-gendered” folks like himself, no questions asked. He is not supposed to find himself on the receiving end and have his moral authority threatened by a bunch of uppity non-binary POCs….
In short, the mainstream left wanted to have its racial politics and not get eaten by it, too. But once a system is in place and its basic principles are established, it tends to keep operating to the logical end point of those principles. And the logical end point is exactly what Chait is whining about: Binary Persons Without Color on the left now face being summarily labeled and dismissed as bigots — the very same treatment they have so eagerly applied to the right for so many years.
This new round of political correctness has also turned on the Democratic Party. In July, they began to expunge two key founders of the party: Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. But as I pointed out, by the same reasoning hardly any Democratic Party icon would be safe, counting down everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter. And one part was prophetic: students at Princeton University are now demanding that the school expunge its revered former leader Woodrow Wilson.
That’s where the chickens have really come home to roost this year: on college campuses.
In the middle of the year, I ticked down a list of old-fashioned “liberal” pieties that have long since been abandoned by the left. This includes the value of a liberal education.
The “liberal arts” did not originally refer to a political leaning. The phrase referred to the kind of education in the humanities that was considered appropriate for a free man. But the mid-20th-century political liberals embraced a liberal education and regarded the liberal arts departments of the universities as their natural home. Young people were encouraged to get a liberal arts education to open their minds and broaden their horizons, requiring them to understand the great historical debates and confront unfamiliar ideas.
It all seems so hopelessly antique. There is a debate currently going on about whether a liberal education is worthwhile, and whether anyone should bother to get one any more. But the wider context for this debate is that the liberals are the ones killing liberal education.
They’re killing it economically by means of the Paradox of Subsidies — the decades of subsidized student loans that have made a college education so outrageously expensive, and leaves young people with such enormous piles of debt, that most students can’t afford to dabble in any field that doesn’t promise an immediate economic payoff.
But they’ve also killed it off by stamping out all of the challenging and unfamiliar ideas. This started in the 1990s when students protested for the elimination of courses in Western Civilization, on the grounds that being asked to think about great ideas produced by “dead white European males” is racist. Today, this closed-mindedness has become a full-blown system, with “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” designed to quarantine students from contact with uncomfortable ideas. As one student explained to a reporter, she needed to seek the isolation of a safe space because, “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.” Way back when, liberals told us that this was the whole purpose of college. Then they built a system that was intended to prevent precisely such encounters. It’s almost as if they never really meant it — as if they meant that you were only supposed to encounter ideas that challenge the beliefs of the right, not ideas that challenge the dearly held beliefs of the left.
It is on campus that the left has created a quasi-totalitarian system of social conformity — as the base from which they have tried to impose those rules on everyone.
One of the examples this year is the war on comedy, in which even revered figures like Jerry Seinfeld are taken to task for making politically incorrect jokes, lest anyone become amused inappropriately. For this reason, Seinfeld says he won’t perform at college campuses. But it’s no use, because the campus will come to him.
But the universities can’t escape having the same quasi-totalitarian system imposed on themselves, and that’s what came to a head this fall at the University of Missouri, Yale, and Claremont McKenna College — with many other campus activists itching to get in on the revolution. The universities, those utopias of multicultural tolerance, have found themselves accused of being shot through with “systemic racism,” and protesters have demanded the firing of administrators, all the way up to the presidents of universities, for such crimes as daring to question the Halloween Costume Inquisition.
All of which is a mortal danger the universities have created for themselves.
This is higher ed’s time for choosing. If this is the new purpose of the universities — to nurture a crop of activists trained at whipping up angry mobs, and a generation of college graduates conditioned to submit to those mobs —then there is no longer any purpose served by these institutions. There is certainly no justification for the outrageous claim they are making on the economic resources of the average family, which sends their kids to schools whose tuition has been inflated by decades of government subsidies.
The universities have done this to themselves. They created the whole phenomenon of modern identity politics and Politically Correct rules to limit speech. They have fostered a totalitarian microculture in which conformity to those rules is considered natural and expected. Now that system is starting to eat them alive, from elite universities like Yale to Mizzou and on down.
And if they don’t fight back, they are facing the steamroller of university office politics.
Everyone who has ever spent time around a university or with academics knows that beneath all the high-flown ivory tower stuff, there is a constant scramble for money and authority. Every department’s job is to expand itself, to hire more faculty and administrators, to expand its budget, to get bigger offices in a nicer building. Now the “social justice” faction among the faculty has found a way to club everyone else into submission and win departmental office politics once and for all. Accuse the university of systemic racism, force its nominal leaders into groveling apologies, and then dictate terms to the rest of the system. Emboldened and seeing that no one wants to stand up to them, they’re even attempting to take over every other department of the university by foisting mandatory courses in “social justice” on the math department.
So what looks from the outside like a student protest movement looks on the inside like an administrative coup by a small faction of the faculty, using naive and ill-informed students as their shock troops.
It’s almost as if this were a pitched battle over money and power, after all.
But there is a much deeper sense in which the campus protesters are pawns of their professors. That figure of speech about chickens and roosts is one that I borrowed from Ayn Rand, who used it about 50 years ago to describe the first round of leftist campus protests and to make the point that the student “rebels” were just dutifully parroting the ideas of their elders. Taking a cue from her — and from presidential candidate Marco Rubio — I argued that we can blame the philosophers.
[T]here is a reason the field of philosophy has fallen so far into disrepute that it has become the butt of presidential debates. It ends with the current campus insanity, but it begins with that scoundrel Immanuel Kant….
At the heart of Kant’s system, there is a radical skepticism: perception is inherently distorting, so there is no indisputable reality we have access to. There’s only the truth as it appears to you, filtered through your own consciousness…. [T]here is no truth, only people’s perception — well, I think you can begin to see how we get to Yale, Mizzou, and the current grievance culture….
We had to add racial differences to the things that distort our perception, then we had to accommodate the feminists (and the LGBTQ) by adding gender, until we got to the modern (or postmodern) holy trinity of “race, class, and gender.” But the key Kantian assumption remains: that there is no universal truth, just your “perspective,” as a trans person of color or a left-handed lesbian tugboat worker, or whatever. And no one else is entitled to question your perspective. It’s true because it’s true for you. If you are aggrieved, the very fact of your grievance validates itself.
If that’s the case, what’s the point of discussing any of it? It’s not for others to question or for you to explain. You just scream out your rage and frustration, and they have to cave….
This is the universities expressing the final, consistent form of their own ruling philosophy.
There are two centuries of chickens coming home to roost, because that’s how long ago academic intellectuals began toying with the idea that ideas don’t matter and everything is just a raw power struggle.
But while the new political correctness may seem irresistibly strong — at least when it is employed against soft targets like university administrators — that masks an underlying weakness, what I called the Paradox of Dogma: “If you try to shut down public debate, is this a way of ensuring that you win — or an admission that you have already lost?”
If I were to come up with one idea for how the left could cripple itself over the long term, it would be: teach your young adherents that ideological debate is an abnormal trauma and that it is a terrible imposition to ever expect them to engage in it. It is a great way of raising a generation of mental cripples. And that is exactly what they have set out to do….
The most powerful historical precedent for this is the totalitarian creed of the Soviet Union — a dogma imposed, not just by campus censors or a Twitter mob, but by gulags and secret police. Yet one of the lessons of the Soviet collapse is that the ideological uniformity of a dictatorship seems totally solid and impenetrable — right up to the moment it cracks apart. The imposition of dogma succeeds in getting everyone to mouth the right slogans, even as fewer and fewer of them understand or believe the ideology behind it.
And that brings us back to a question I started the year with: have we reached Peak Leftism?
[I]ts very dominance of cultural institutions means that the left is up against a couple of big unfavorable factors…. [W]hat happens if our culture reverts to the mean? Even a small change in that direction would be experienced as a massive cultural swing to the right.
When a field swings back from 95-5 dominance to just an 80-20 majority, that would be experienced as a quadrupling of the number of right-leaning voices in the field. Moreover, any such shift is likely to have a snowballing effect. Those who are sympathetic to the right but were afraid to speak out would be more likely to declare themselves. Many people would be exposed to and convinced by pro-free-market arguments that they might not have heard under the old groupthink. People who might have given up on careers in academia or the mainstream media, on the assumption that their politics limit their career prospects, would be encouraged to persist and would find employers and mentors who share their views. Eventually, a critical mass of prominent right-leaning achievers in these fields would chip away at the automatic assumption that certain cultural markers — being young, being educated, being sophisticated, being artistic — are inherently associated with being on the left.
The problem for the modern left is that it has bet everything on those associations.
A swing back to the right, I concluded, is not at all inevitable. Rather, the fragility of the left’s dominance presents us with an opportunity. And given the number of people who thought their moderate liberalism made them safe from political correctness but who are now discovering how foolish that was, there is plenty of fuel for a backlash.
If 2014 was the year the politically correct left tried to impose its orthodoxy on everyone, and 2015 was the year it turned against its ideological home in universities, then it is possible that 2016 will be the year when some of its targets begin to fight back.
Follow Robert on Twitter.